Another more radical proposal would be to establish
a wholly new U.S. Special Operations Force. This
new command could train and maintain a cadre of
operators organized into teams by skill set, akin to
the British Special Air Service (SAS). In this form,
the team is broken down into four troops, each with
a specialization in a specific type of insertion and
extraction (e.g. Air, Boat, Mobility [motorized
vehicles], and Mountain). SAS operators are not
only cross-trained in their specialty, but they spend
a great deal of time learning and developing skills
that are requisite once a given team has inserted.

Clearly, this latter concept is a matter for discussion
beyond the scope of this article; however, it
remains something that should be considered by
the military’s planners as we continue through this
era of limited war. At the time of the commissioning
of the first SEAL teams in 1962, there was a
pressing and urgent need for special operations
forces capable of operating in a largely Riverine
environment (i.e. Vietnam). So too was there a
need for this capability to be numerically robust
enough to conduct littoral operations against the
myriad potential targets that might arise in the
event of war with the Soviet Union.

Today, the U.S. does not face an overtly belligerent
threat from any major power. The Cold War ended,
changing the landscape of conflict from one of
superpower versus superpower to one of
confrontation of terrorists, warlords, and
insurgents. The maritime landscape has long since
changed from clandestine limpet mine attacks
against enemy warships in port to one of putting
SEALs ashore in hostile territory as merely the first
phase of a longer overland mission.

That said, the potential for conflicts with China or
Russia also demand that the U.S. retain sufficient
special operations capability to present a credible
response to counter any potential or actual
aggression from larger military powers. Combining
the teams with a larger force as described above (in
either scenario) would retain this capability, while
allowing the military to confront the unconventional
but quite real threats posed by terrorist,
insurgents, and guerrillas.

In conclusion, it is accepted that the Navy’s SEAL
teams are exceptionally skilled and experienced in
the maritime environment. They include amongst
their ranks some of the most highly trained and
capable maritime special operations personnel in the
world. Yet, it should also be recognized that, in
today’s real-world conflicts, maritime special warfare
personnel are not called on to use this specific and
limited skill set, except in very rare occasions.
Rather, it is their expertise in traditional
beyond-the-beach missions, such as tracking down
high value targets, nighttime raids on enemy
compounds, and commando-style assaults that are
these units’ primary missions.

Any sober analysis of potential future conflicts
reveals that these sort of missions will remain at the
top of the list for the unique talents of America’s
SOF. Thus, it is important that we consistently
revisit the function of the Navy SEAL teams and
their future role within the special operations
About Thomas B. Hunter
Mr. Hunter served as an intelligence officer with the
Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) from June 2002
to April 2007. During this time, he specialized in a
variety of analytical areas, including Homeland
Security, Detainee Support, and South American
narcoterrorism. While serving in the Weapons
Branch, Mr. Hunter specialized in the analysis of
terrorist tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTP),
which included in-depth study of improvised
explosive devices and the TTP employed in their use
worldwide. He earned numerous honors and awards
including citations from other government agencies
with whom he consulted and coordinated hundreds
of finished intelligence papers.

Mr. Hunter has also written extensively on
numerous topics for such publications as Jane’s
Intelligence Review, Jane’s International Police
Review, and U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings. In this
capacity, he has published over 100 articles on
subjects ranging from maritime piracy and special
operations to counterterrorism, transnational crime,
and other topics pertaining to asymmetric threats
and responses. He has also served as the editor of
the Journal of Counterterrorism and Security
International and the Special Operations Journal.

Mr. Hunter holds a Masters Degree in
Unconventional Warfare from the American Military
University; a Masters Degree in International
Security Studies from the University of St. Andrews
(Scotland); and an undergraduate degree in English
and American Literature from the University of
Southern California. He is currently an adjunct
professor at Henley-Putnam University.
Do We Need More Than the SEALs?
by Thomas B. Hunter
Yet, despite arguments to the contrary, the
maritime environment as it pertains to special
operations largely boils down to one of a number of
routes of entry into an operational area requiring a
specific type and method of transportation. Other
methods include air (i.e., air assault, airborne) and
land (i.e., foot patrol, vehicle). There is little tactical
mystery to the techniques involved, save some
small variations, particularly given the fact that
dozens of nations have long maintained similar
capabilities within their own SOF units.

It is obvious that the SEAL teams provide no small
measure of pride, mystique, and even awe among
the general public and within the services. That the
SEALs have been the subject of popular Hollywood
films, best-selling books, television documentaries,
and innumerable magazine articles has done nothing
but increase the prestige associated with this famed
unit. From a recruiting perspective, it is natural that
the Navy would want to retain the SEALs on this
basis alone.

There is also no question that the SEAL team
operators are amongst the most skilled and highly
trained special operations personnel in the maritime
domain. However, the reality is that operations in
Afghanistan and Iraq have shown the future of
special operations to be not in the water, but on
land. The vast majority of SEAL operations have
taken place not in seas, oceans, or bays, but in the
mountains and caves of Afghanistan and in the
streets of towns and cities in Iraq. Clearly, while the
ability to insert and extract from the sea is a skill
that must be maintained, it is not an oft-practiced
real-world mission.

Should the Navy require littoral combat mission,
such as beach reconnaissance, the U.S. Marines
Corp reconnaissance teams are, and have proven,
more than capable of filling this role. This, in fact, is
USMC reconnaissance’s bread and butter. This does
not require the skill set of a SEAL whose true value,
ostensibly, lies beyond the surf zone.

So what then should become of the SEAL teams?
One proposal that merits consideration is combining
existing SEAL teams into the U.S. Army’s Special
Forces Groups. These latter units maintain an
excellent maritime domain expertise derived, at
least initially, via attendance at the Army’s Combat
Diver Course, Combat Dive Supervisor Course, and
other maritime training opportunities in the U.S.
and abroad. Yet, these personnel do not spend the
majority of their time in the water. Instead, this skill
set is viewed (and accurately so) as another method
of clandestine entry into a target location – a small
piece of a much larger picture. Incorporating the
SEALs into the USSF would greatly enhance the
U.S. military’s special operations capabilities while
retaining the specialized skills developed by the
teams over the last 45 years.

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Copyright © 2019  Barry M. Baker  
Raising the question as to whether or not the
United States military needs the SEAL teams is, at
the very least, bound to raise a few eyebrows. Yet,
when one examines the question with a
dispassionate eye, the answers are not so clear-cut.
In fact, careful consideration of the idea requires an
equally careful solution. In the final analysis, it may
be that the future of the SEALs lies not with the
Navy, but with a carefully thought-out integration
with other special operations forces (SOF).

This is not to say that the Navy should have no role
in special warfare; quite the contrary. In fact, the
Naval Special Warfare Command plays a critical role
in this equation. The Navy’s Special Boat Units
(SBU) along with their attendant Mobile Support
Teams (MST) provide an experienced, highly trained
cadre capable of operating a number of specialized
platforms (e.g. Mark V Special Operations Craft,
NSW Rigid Inflatable Boats, Special Operations Craft
-Riverine) ideal for the overt or clandestine maritime
insertion of special operations teams. Additionally,
the Navy’s other unique special warfare platform,
the Swimmer Delivery Vehicle (SDV) units, offer a
proven and important capability for clandestine
maritime insertions.